Upended? New rule is making Texans question the balance of academics and extracurriculars

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE Alamo State, as many people know, takes its high school sports seriously; its dance teams and marching bands as well. So it came as no surprise earlier this month when the initial effect of the state's new ``no pass no play'' rule -- requiring a passing grade of 70 on all academic subjects to participate in extracurricular activities -- was suddenly the talk of Texas.

In San Antonio, inch-high headlines on the front page of the city's largest newspaper declared that one high school's baseball team had been ``struck out'' by the new rule, with 11 ballplayers benched. The next day, the Dallas Morning News used only slightly less ink in front-page headlines to report that the new rule had struck ``a sour note'' for members of a suburban Dallas high school band: Thirty musicians from the 108-member group would be ineligible for a combination band festival and ski trip because of poor grades.

While the outcry is no cause for astonishment, the support the ``no pass no play'' rule continues to garner is. From among principals, teachers, parents, and even coaches and students, there appears to be a consensus that a better balance between academics and extracurricular activities is needed. It's a consensus that is building momentum around the country.

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Here in Texas, the one serious objection being raised to the new regulations is that the Legislature, in approving the new regulations, may have been too harsh, too abrupt. The rules governing participation in extracurricular activities are part of a comprehensive statewide education reform bill passed last June. The bill closely followed recommendations of a select committee headed by Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot.

``The problem we have with this law [pertaining to extracurricular activities] is that it is purely punitive,'' says Harold Massey, executive director of the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals (TASSP) here. ``There's nothing motivational about it.'' With that in mind, the TASSP is sponsoring legislation to amend the law in order to allow students some flexibility, without ``going back to the old system.''

What his organization supports, says Mr. Massey, is a law that ``stops extracurriculars from interfering with the basics and the curriculum day,'' but that also recognizes the value of such activities as sports, music, drama, and academic competitions in maintaining student interest and developing special talents.

Others, including many legislators and Gov. Mark White, agree that the regulations on extracurriculars could use some fine-tuning. But the underlying feeling is that, before the law took effect, the basic school day was operating at the mercy of out-of-class activities. Now, that reasoning continues, such activities will be put back in their proper place.

The question is, just what is their proper place?

The Texas law states that any student who receives a grade lower than 70 out of 100 in any academic class for a six-week grading period will be ineligible for the following six-week grading period to participate in any extracurricular activity sponsored or sanctioned by the school district. That moves the passing grade up from 60, which before the new law was the generally accepted passing grade, and increases from four to five the number of courses a student must pass.

In addition, the state's new Board of Education has ruled that no student may have more than 10 absences a year for extracurriculars, and that no more than eight hours may be spent each week on such after-school activities as band or athletic practice -- and that includes travel time to games and other competitions.

It is rare for a state to pass laws affecting extracurricular activities. But all across the country, local school boards are taking similar action: toughening participation standards, reaffirming that academics must come back to the head of the class.

In Springfield, Mass., the school committee recently passed a regulation requiring that high school students receive at least a ``C'' in all major subjects -- and fail no course -- in order to participate in extracurriculars. As a result, one school's girls' basketball team was forced to forfeit the rest of its scheduled games, and the chess team at the city's liberal-arts-oriented high school lost two of five members.

An amendment to the original rule now states that a student must achieve a ``C'' average in all major subjects, while failing no courses. The suspension from participation for anything below that level remains one full grading period.

In Springfield, impetus for the tough rule did not come from academically minded educators or career-minded parents, but from the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The organization contended that too many minority athletes were allowed to sacrifice their academic achievement in favor of sports.

Such moves reflect the tougher standards college-freshmen athletes will face if the National Collegiate Athletic Association leaves unaltered regulations scheduled to take effect in August of 1986. Those rules would require passing grades in a high school core curriculum, plus a combined 700 SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Tests) score, or 15 on the ACT (American College Test).

In Texas, surveys showing that fully one-quarter of secondary school students now will be ineligible for extracurriculars have many educators concerned. A number of high school administrators say they fear students deprived of school activities will resort to less constructive pastimes, that discouragement and embarrassment could aggravate faltering academic performance -- and that some low achievers with little else to look forward to might drop out of school altogether.

``To tell a kid who wants to develop and perform his talents that he can't participate is wrong,'' says Ronald Reaves, principal of Lee High School in San Antonio. ``It completely knocks out the motivation of the student.''

Mr. Reaves says he agrees something was needed to put extracurriculars in a proper perspective, but he wonders if the values of such participation have been underestimated. ``It's these kinds of activities that give students a feeling of belonging,'' he says. ``They learn about budgeting their time and organizing themselves. They have a better feeling of self-worth, and they get an opportunity to see how they fare against others.''

Echoing Mr. Reaves's concerns is Bob Smith, the school's football coach. ``What really worries me is the six-week inactive period that will suddenly present itself to these kids who have always been busy with their sports,'' he says. ``I know what temptations present themselves out there, and I have to wonder, what are these kids going to do with their free time.''

The Texas law calls for tutorials to be set up to help students bring their grades back up. But the after-school sessions are not obligatory, and initial response has been poor.

Some educators point to evidence that students' grades are actually boosted by participation in activities. Charles Brown, an assistant superintendent with the Northside School District in San Antonio, says his experience as a football coach proved to him that athletes do better in their classes during the playing season. ``There's the encouragement from the coaches, and then just the motivation to do well all around,'' he says.

Mr. Reaves backs this up with a recent study done in a Texas high school showing that football players had better grades while active in their sport.

Mr. Reaves says he is also concerned that students are opting for easier courses so as not to risk participation in activities. He points to the case in his school of a basketball player who had his parents' support in his decision to drop calculus. ``Others are dropping or deciding not to take physics and chemistry,'' says Reaves. ``They say it's too much of a risk.''

The law does allow a principal to waive suspension from activities if the failing grade is earned in an honors course. But, wonders Reaves, ``Is this saying it's OK to fail an honors course, but not others?''

Despite these observations, Reaves says he supports the law pertaining to extracurriculars -- except for the provision that suspension from participation be for an entire six-week grading period. He prefers a system whereby participation could resume once weekly checks showed the student is again passing all courses.

Teachers oppose a weekly grade check, saying it would create too much paper work and disruption of course flow. But Mr. Reaves believes it would be ``an effective motivational device.'' He adds that six weeks ``is devastating. What can the band director or coach do with the student who's out of performances or games for six weeks? I'm afraid that too often, such a kid is written off.''

With observations like Mr. Reaves's pouring in from around the state, the Texas Legislature is considering changes in the law affecting extracurricular activities. Earlier this month the state Senate passed a resolution calling for weekly grade checks. In the House, various proposals call for shortening the suspension period to 1, 2, or 3 weeks. Governor White says he could support cutting the grade-check period in half -- to three weeks.

In addition, the TASSP has authored a bill with two principal amendments: It calls for reducing the grade-check period to one week, but would also allow participation in activities as long as the student is passing the courses he needs to graduate. For high school students, that would be 21 classes over four years.

According to Mr. Massey, this would allow some flexibility for students who go beyond basic requirements.

As for H. Ross Perot, chairman of the governor's committee that recommended the tough stand on participation in extracurriculars, he sees any amendment as a clear retreat from the law's intent. He maintains that, in time, students would accept that participating in activities comes after all classes are passed.

In any case, it appears likely that the Texas law as it affects extracurricular activities will undergo some amendment, if only slight, before summer.

But the true test of the law's resistance to pressures from sports and activities boosters could come next fall, when Texans' much-loved high school football will feel the effect of the new rules.

At Lee High School, Coach Smith notes that if football season were getting under way today, he would lose 10 of his 40 varsity players. ``These activities certainly are secondary to the academics,'' he says. ``But they're still important.'' --

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